Wesley Paul CHOAT MM

Badge Number: S407, Sub Branch: Colonel  Light Gardens
S407

CHOAT, Wesley Paul

Service Number: 68
Enlisted: 12 July 1915, Keswick, South Australia
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 32nd Infantry Battalion
Born: Cherry Gardens, South Australia, 27 August 1896
Home Town: Clarence Park, South Australia
Schooling: Goodwood Public School
Occupation: Farm labourer
Died: Natural causes, Panorama, South Australia, 15 January 1977, aged 80 years
Cemetery: Centennial Park Cemetery, South Australia
Cremation Date: 18 Jan 1977
Memorials: Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial (Ballarat), Cherry Gardens WW1 Roll of Honour, Curramulka Uniting Church WW1 Pictorial Roll of Honor , Goodwood Public School WW1 Roll of Honor, Unley Town Hall WW1 Honour Board
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World War 1 Service

12 Jul 1915: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 68, Keswick, South Australia
18 Nov 1915: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 68, 32nd Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
18 Nov 1915: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, SN 68, 32nd Infantry Battalion, HMAT Geelong, Adelaide
20 Jul 1916: Imprisoned Fromelles (Fleurbaix)
20 Jul 1916: Wounded Private, SN 68, 32nd Infantry Battalion, Fromelles (Fleurbaix)
6 Dec 1918: Discharged AIF WW1, Private, SN 68, 32nd Infantry Battalion
30 Jan 1920: Honoured Military Medal, Awarded for escaping from German captivity.

"One evening in prison......"

Extract from "Second to None" by Dr Roger Freeman pp 292/3

"One evening in prison while we were waiting for our tea, a young lady beckoned to me and showed me a note. I got a gas mask satchel and let it down over the wall by means of a string, into which the girl put her note, which to my immense relief I found to be written in English. What was even better still, it was from British prisoners who were billeted in the town, and who had written to ask how we were situated in regard to food and clothing.

We lost no time in writing an answer telling them that we would be grateful for anything they could spare us.

I hailed the little lady who had unconsciously done so much for us and handed down the reply.

Within three hours to our overwhelming surprise, three Tommies (British soldiers) came marching in, each with a great sack of stuff. No words wither in English or German could express our feelings at the joyful inspiring sight of a strange face yet speaking our own language.

These boys gave us some useful information as to how we should act and above all impressed on us that as long as we kept moving reasonably, Fritz had no right to hurry us at all.

What we wanted to know more than all else was how long it would be before our parcels would reach us.

The sight of their careless, happy yet determined faces was in itself enough to cheer us up tremendously, and the vigorous shake of their hard-worked and scarred hands, which one could feel came straight from their hearts, and as we were the first 'Aussies' they had ever seen, the novelty and greeting was not all on one side.

The sentries would not allow them to stay for very long, so they tipped out their bags, and went back to their waiting comrades, with the promise that, if allowed, they would come back each week.

Then came the pleasant task of dividing the food and clothing between us which took quite a long time, none of us being eager for bed that night. But after eating, and alas, gorging ourselves to the full, we did at last turn in and dream of all manner of pleasant dinners and luncheons.

The arrival of this food and the information we received tended to make us feel independent and more buoyant. Our hearts once more beat regularly , and we were helped to forget the previous days of hunger and almost despair."

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Wesley Choat's Military Medal Citation

His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the reward of the Military Medal to Private Wesley Choat in recognition of gallant conduct and determination displayed in escaping or attempting to escape from captivity which services have been brought to notice.
Extract "Second to None" p 356

Captured at Fromelles

Extract from Dr Roger Freeman's book "Second to None"

Letter from Welsey Choat.

"We had some splendid shooting, took the first line, and dug ourselves in about a hundred yards beyond. The digging did not go very deep, as when at a foot in depth we found water, and we had to make a barricade.

Those of us who had reached so far held on, and made as much cover as possible, and were complimenting ourselves on a good success at the first advance, when the order came: "We are surrounded, every man for himself".

Although surprised, we formed up and tried to charge back to our own lines, but a piece of shrapnel, whether from friend or foe I could not say, was stopped by my nose, the force of which toppled me into a nearby shell-hole and robbed me of my senses for some time.

On coming to consciousness all was comparatively quiet, but 'Fritz' was around gathering up the living and then the awful realisation came over me "I am a prisoner of war". The thought alone was enough to try the strongest nerve, and by what I saw and had heard, I fully expected to be killed outright or worked to death behind the lines. My feelings were made more miserable by the fact that I was the only man living in that sector, and began to think that 'my number' surely was up., but on getting into their communication trench I found , to my immense relief there were others of my comrades in the same plight, and on reaching the road to which this trench led, I met more of our boys, about twenty in all. We were then marched to the Field Dressing Station, where the worst of he wounds were dressed, and any case of men unable to walk . were sent direct to hospital.

On reaching this station I found three hundred in all, 'Tommies' and 'Aussies'. From there we were placed under a mounted guard and taken right through LIlle, where we were greeted at almost every window by a camera, anxious to get a good photo of the first batch of 'Aussies'. The sight of us, battle worn, muddy and with clots of blood allover us, had a very depressing effect on the French population, and it was a very frequent and pathetic sight to see an elderly woman dressed in black, sobbing and crying over our apparent failure.

Another very common experience was when some French lady, who was probably depriving herself and family of needed food, would venture as close as possible, and attempt to hand us some piece of their black war bread. But as soon as a sentry noticed, he would turn his horse in her direction , flourishing his lance, and using very lurid language."

Wesley Choat, MM pp 85 'Second to None'.

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Biography

The second son of Joseph and Alice Mary Choat, resident in Clarence Park, and born on the 17th August 1895, Wesley Paul Choat's story is one of the most remarkable tales of luck and tragedy from WW1 in general and the battle of Fromelles in particular.  Fromelles was to mark the Choat family like no other.

Private Wesley Paul Choat was the farmer of the family and before the war broke out he had been farming on the York Peninsula for six years.

On the 12th of July, 1915, the two younger brothers, Archibald Percy Choat (/explore/people/1869) and Wesley Choat enlisted in the AIF. They were given the regimental numbers 66 and 68 respectively. Their older brother Raymond (Ray) Hadden Choat (/explore/people/1871) enlisted just a few days later on the 21st of July, 1915. He was given the service number of 67. They were all placed in ‘A’ Company, 32nd Battalion.  Such a situation is unthinkable in more recent times for the risk it poses to the loss of multiple members of one family.  And so it proved to be.

Their service paralleled that of their colleagues in the 32nd Battalion from embarkation on the HMAT Geelong, to their transit in Egypt, then on to the green fields of France and their arrival in the 'Nursery' sector near Armentieres and a little village called Fromelles.

The Choat brothers were caught up in the maelstrom of the battle of Fromelles (/explore/campaigns/2) on 19/20th July. A and C Companies were formed up on the right of the 8th Brigade line and were in the first wave of the attack. The Germans knew they were coming and they were met with a withering hail of fire.   The 8th Brigade managed to penetrate the German line into what they thought was to be a second line of trenches.  In fact it was a series of waterlogged ditches.  Because the 14th and 15th Brigades were less successful, the 8th Brigade was now "in enfilade" to the German defences to the right.  They were then progressively cut off by German counter attacks and Welseys's account described what happened to him and his colleagues.

His two brothers were killed in the  assault most likely by the machine gun fire which swept the ground over which they attacked.  Archie's body was recovered and identified and was interred in the nearby Rue Petillon cemetery.    Ray's body was not identified and is either in the common grave at VC Corner Cemetery (He is commemorated on the Wall there), still in the farmland where he fell or perhaps he was in the mass grave at Pheasant Wood and not yet identified. Detritus from the battle can still be found in the surrounding fields.

Imagine the impact in Adelaide when the Choat  family received news that all three sons had been listed as killed or missing in just one night, "somewhere in France".

However, unbeknown to the authorities at that stage Wesley had survived.  He was, like many others mainly in the 8th Brigade, cut off, wounded and captured behind German lines. 

Some weeks later the German authorities advised via the Red Cross of Welsey's capture.  So the Choat family, stricken with grief from the earlier news now knew that  Wesley Choat, their second son, was being held as a POW in Germany.  One of their three sons was alive. 

The story doesn't end there though.  Wesley was clearly a determined young man and In September, 1917 he tried to escape from captivity but after managing to get out of the camp he was later re-captured.

At this time he knew nothing of his brother’s deaths. In December the same year he escaped again and this time he made it across the border to Holland (which was neutral during WW 1) and safety. 

By January 1918, he made it across the channel to England. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery whilst escaping from captivity and discharged from further duty and sent on a ship back to Australia.

By December, 1918, he was back in Adelaide; ending one of the most remarkable stories from the AIF.

From losing all three sons in one night in one battle, the Choat family had managed to get one of their three boys back.  It must have seemed like an act of providence.

Wesley Paul Choat, while sailing back to Australia, wrote a personal memoir of his escape from Germany called, “A Bold Bid for Blighty.” It is available to be read at the following web-link:  http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/_transcript/2012/D14739/a3900.htm

After his discharge from the Army, Wesley became a member of the Colonel Light Gardens RSL Sub Branch.  His Badge Number was S/407 and he remained a member from 16th November 1918 until 31 Dec 1975.  He passed away in 1977 aged 82.  At the time he was resident at 34 Springbank Rd, Panorama.  He was buried at Centennial Park Cemetery.

 

Research by Nathan Rohralch and Steve Larkins Jan 2014

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